My Review: Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Reading Zero to One feels like being let in on the world’s greatest secrets. Thiel, like fellow PayPal mafia alum Elon Musk, is a true polymath. His depth of knowledge spans philosophy, technology, history, economy, finance, the environment and psychology, and is all the more stunning because of how simply he is able to break down and explain complex ideas in each of these disciplines - usually taking a contrarian stance.

Over the course of my reading Zero to One, Thiel enhanced my views on the AI threat, on monopolies, on Malcolm Gladwell, and on progress - no short order for one book.

1) AI threat - How can computers help humanity solve hard problems? Thiel talks of computers being complementary to human efforts, and how in many cases they create opportunities, as opposed to the all-too-commonly spoken of ‘computers replacing us’ threat.

2) Monopolies - I was interested in Thiel’s take on monopolies. As described in Louis Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance about IBM, I’m used to seeing a monopoly as something that stagnates progress as an organization loses touch with external movements. Thiel’s take is that the monopoly is the only time a company is financially profitable and innovative, because competition is inherently bad for an organization’s freedom.

3) Malcolm Gladwell - Thiel also provides a brilliant analysis of Gladwell’s Outliers, which has always confounded me but I could never quite pinpoint what about it bothered me (aside from the anecdotal style). Thiel argues that the debate over whether success comes from luck or skill doesn’t matter - what matters is how we frame our relationship with the future. If we believe that success is luck, we will be passive. If we believe we can control the future, we are more inclined to take action to shape it.

4) Progress - This is surprising for my generation, as we have grown up with a quickly-evolving Internet and that to us seems like great progress, but Thiel highlights how progress has stagnated compared to previous decades when quality of life was getting better in many different aspects. He speaks of progress being exclusive to IT in our generation, and lagging in other areas - and emphasizes the biotech and green energy opportunities.

And of course I took away many start-up tips:

1) Always err on the side of starting too small.
2) The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together served by few or no competitors.
3) The problem with the flatness of our world is that we have insight into how much others are doing and assume that if something is worth doing, someone else would have already done it.

Finally, some of the best quotes:

“Money is more valuable than anything you could possibly do with it.”
“Focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing but first think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.”